Metafictional strategies and the theme of sexual power in the Wife of Bath's and Franklin's Tales

John Stephens*, Marcella Ryan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


The authors here contest a traditional male reading of the Franklin's Tale in which a patronizing attitude towards the 'inept' femininity of Dorigen goes hand in hand with an acceptance of the ideal of marital happiness the Tale supposedly lays before the reader. On the contrary, Dorigen should be seen as the victim of a patriarchal authority that dissembles itself in the 'illusion' of caring and concern for the female, just as the illusion of the rocks' disappearance represents in the Tale the cloaking of an aggressive male sexuality underneath the rhetoric of fin amour. However, the Franklin's Tale's constant attention to metafictional elements alerts the reader to the process of fiction-making itself as an 'illusion', and offers a kind of 'self-dismantling' of textual authority (the text/reader relationship being analogous to that between male/female) which encourages the reader to 'penetrate the conventions of discourse' and unmask the (male) illusions therein. Even so, Stephens and Ryan see little that is positive in the roles of the women characters themselves in Chaucer's Tales: Dorigen's fate is one of submission and silence and, in the equation made between verbal and sexual power, a 'clitoridectomized' role dependent on men for its activation; by comparison, where a woman does briefly achieve sexual and verbal power, as with the old hag towards the end of the Wife of Bath's Tale, this is quickly effaced by the transformation scene leading to another male illusion of 'the ideal object of desire'. For the authors, Chaucer held 'a bleak view of male-female relations': though sympathetic to the women who are constrained by the superficial and simplified versions of themselves that constitute male objects of desire, and though allowing his women speakers some access to the deeper levels of discourse that challenge such versions, he sees 'little prospect for change' in the relations between gender and power in his own day. This is no reason, however, why modern readers should not offer a more substantial challenge to the superficial and simplified interpretations of a male interpretative tradition.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationChaucer
Subtitle of host publicationThe Canterbury Tales
EditorsSteve Ellis
Place of PublicationLondon ; New York
PublisherRoutledge, Taylor and Francis Group
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9781317891208
ISBN (Print)9781138180246, 9780582248816
Publication statusPublished - 1998

Publication series

NameLongman Critical Readers

Bibliographical note

Ebook version published 2014.

First published in Nottingham Medieval Studies 33, 1989.


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